I won’t beat around the bush or mince words. For me, the dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail has now come to an end.
We recently returned from our 10-day vacation in the mountains of northern New Mexico. This was the first year that I would be able to really test out how my bad foot and ankle would react to true hiking in the outdoors. Eighteen months ago, I had a tendon transfer surgery on my left foot and ankle in order to try to straighten out my foot and make walking easier. Like I have written before, the surgery quickly failed within a few months and my foot rolled right back to its awkward position. Prior to the surgery, I had always been able to hike, slowly and delicately, with proper footwear, but was able to hike none-the-less. This year’s attempts at hiking would be the first real chance to see how the foot and ankle would react without any tendon support on the outside of the foot.
I did my first walk the day after we arrived in the mountains. This was a short 2-mile hike on a dirt surface that used to be a mining road. I did fairly well, armed with brand new hiking shoes and a pair of new trekking poles. Things were looking up.
The next hike was a challenging 4-mile hike to an alpine lake high in the mountains. This was an actual hiking trail versus a dirt road, the first 2-miles were all uphill, and the trail was VERY rocky. Very, very rocky.
I quickly discovered that I HATE ROCKS!! My pace soon slowed to a crawl as I tried to weave around and over the small-to-medium sized rocks that littered the trail. My Brother-in-Law and Nephew soon ended up way ahead of me on the trail and I was left to fight the rocks alone. (This was a trail that my wife and I had hiked in a previous year with no difficulty)
Even with new shoes and the added balance of the trekking poles, I could not keep my left foot in a balanced position as I stepped on each rock, no matter the size of the surface. It was like walking with one broken ice skate. In patches of the trail where the rocks thinned out and I had actual dirt to walk on, I did fine. Once back into the rocks, I again slowed to a painful crawl and spent my whole time staring at my feet, instantly trying to scout out where exactly to plant my feet as I struggled along.
All alone in the woods, I flashed back to the countless books on the Appalachian Trail that I have read thus far.
Lots of ROCKS.
It is a common theme. Apparently, the entire length of the trail in Pennsylvania is nothing but rocks. But what I read, most of the northern states are extremely rocky.
Here I was, attempting a short hike that I had already done previously, and I quickly found that I was unable to continue.
My mind was fine.
I had no doubts that I could get the rest of my body into full hiking shape by next year.
I was not having trouble with the high altitude.
My spirits were fine.
I just could not make it.
Crawling along at a snails pace, wobbling atop pitifully small rocks that would be nothing compared to what awaited us on the AT, I finally realized that I MYSELF COULD walk the Appalachian Trail, or at least a good part of it, B-U-T………..my stupid left foot and ankle cannot. My left leg can no longer tolerate hiking. I can walk on paved roads, dirt trails or roads, grass, etc. but when it comes to any kind of rocky surface, I am up a creek without a paddle.
I stopped in the trail and turned around, about a half-mile from the goal of the alpine lake at the end of the trail. I knew that the walk back down to the car would officially mark the end of my hiking career. My Brother-in-Law and Nephew did make it to the lake, explored a bit, and then headed back down, catching up to me a short time later. They actually walked ahead of me and tried creating a path through the rocks for me so that I would have some flat surfaces to step on. My 3-mile hike took over four hours, embarrassingly slow, even by my normal slow standards.
By the time we reached the car, my ankle would barely move. If it was not numb, I imagined that I would have been in a great deal of pain and discomfort. Later, when I removed my shoe and sock, my entire foot and ankle were purple and swollen. I could not imagine a scenario where it would ever be able to tolerate hiking over 10 miles a day on average, for 6-7 months in a row. I had little doubt that the ankle or foot would most likely break while stepping unevenly on a rock, most likely within the first few days of our Appalachian Trail Hike. I had visions of Steve and Michelle being stuck having to wait with me as I awaited EMT’s to hike up to our location in order to somehow carry me down to civilization.
Braces and high-tech hiking boots have no effect on my foot, and the braces actually make things worse. I know now that there is no piece of equipment that I can possibly buy that would allow me to walk safely over the thousands of miles of rocks scattered along the AT. The trail is even littered with areas of actual rock scrambles where you crawl on hands and knees to try to pull yourself over massive boulders. Other areas involve jumping and hopping from rock to rock atop massive piles of rocks and boulders. If I cannot handle walking on small rocks in the woods, how could I ever possibly think I would be able to hop from the uneven surface of one rock to another?
Again, I CAN DO IT…………… But my foot and ankle can’t.
This failed hike occurred a good week before we left to come back home to Texas. I had lots of time to sit out in my chair, in the cool air, staring at the mountains, thinking about the Appalachian Trail dream that I have, along with Steve and Michelle.
I accept that the physical condition of my left leg will no longer allow me to hike as I was once able to in previous years. I can still do short hikes on fairly flat surfaces, and can still walk the streets of my town, but my days of climbing up rocky trails on the sides of mountains are now over.
Surprisingly, I am now accepting of this fact to a much better degree than I had envisioned. I guess it’s better to find out the truth now rather than facing a painful emotional disappointment just a few days into my Appalachian Trail hike. I quickly realized that I had also failed at this latest hike with only a small backpack filled with water and sandwiches strapped to my back. I cannot imagine what my foot would have endured had I been carrying 30-40lbs on my back as would be expected on our AT hike.
Also, just a few days after my failed hike, I encountered another issue. My Father-in-Law were going to go on a Jeep ride up the mountain. One problem…. I could not get into the jeep! I had to step up about 3 feet in order to get my legs into the Jeep and found that I could not lift my numb legs that high! (I guess I have not tried to lift my legs that high in recent years) The ride was abandoned because I could not even get into the vehicle. I again thought of the stories of hikers climbing over huge boulders out on the trail, and quickly realized, some boulders were just going to be too big for me to ever be able to make it over.
So, MY Appalachian Trail dream is now over…..
Until “Plan B” goes into effect.
Under that ingenious plan, I will coat my bad leg in barbecue sauce and will lay in one of the many dumpsters in Red River, waiting for a member of the large Bear population of the area to make an appearance in its search for food, at which point I will thrust out my BBQ –Sauce encrusted limb so that the animal can chew off the limb, thereby making it so that my Insurance Carrier will have to fit me with a prosthetic bionic foot that can handle hiking up any mountain on the planet.
(Besides….with numb legs and feet, it’s not like I would feel any pain from the bear-gnawing anyway…..)
I know, it IS a damn ingenious plan!
My real regret in this decision is Steve and Michelle. Like me, they had dreams of doing this hike in order to overcome their own physical and psychological demons. While my dream of this hike may be over, I really hope that this does not kill their own dreams of conquering the trail. If they do wish to go on, I will be their main supporter and cheerleader. Nothing would make me happier than seeing the picture of the both of them standing atop Mt. Katahdin in Maine. My hiking dream may be impossible, but I’ll find another dream that I myself can chase. Who knows, maybe it will be something that Steve, Michelle, and I can all complete together.
So, Steve and Michelle……………… Please keep training and please keep hiking!
Chase that dream!
For all of us!
The Mountains await you!
Mark G. Pakulak “The Idiot”